State failure is the greatest threat to world order, says Sergio Vieira de Mello. Only a global commitment to the rule of law and multilateral governance can counter this growing menace – so as to root out terrorism, bolster security and protect human rights –

There are times in human history when change seems to flood in, cascading in torrents over national structures, social orders and the common wisdom itself.

Depending on the response of nations, societies and people, the result can be either a liberating washing away of old problems, or a threatening erosion of the foundations of civilization itself. We are living in just such an age today.

It remains to be seen whether we will make the right decisions. There is much promise in the new opportunities, technologies, legal instruments, and brands of global solidarity that appear before us.

But there are worrying signs as well. Some have already begun to exploit the present climate of fear and insecurity to undercut many of the most important human rights and international relations gains of the past half century.

The evidence is all around us. Terrorism, crime, poverty, disease, economic crisis and conflict are no longer restrained by the obsolete “safeguards” of military force, geographic location or national boundaries. Buttressing human security now demands global solutions to global threats.

But how should human security be gauged? A starting point, as recognized by the Commission on Human Security, is UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s Millennium Assembly call for “freedom from fear and freedom from want”.

Put another way, the indicators of human security are the rights enumerated in the four pillars of the great structure of international law that has emerged since World War II: human rights law, humanitarian law, refugee law and international criminal law.

Taken together, these carefully articulated and agreed norms and standards address every aspect of human security: rights to food, health, education, personal security, political participation, fair justice administration, asylum and non-discrimination. They prohibit the targeting of civilians, the use of torture, the denial of an adequate standard of living and the perpetration of genocide.

These rights also define the substance of international humanitarian action in the field, frame the modern understanding of human development and provide benchmarks for progress in peace-making and peace-building.

Viewed in the negative, they also reveal the particular hallmarks of state failure. Gone are the days when international law defined only the obligations of states vis-ŕ-vis each other.

Today all states recognize their legal duties to respect, protect and fulfil the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of people.

Where they are unable or unwilling to do so, a fundamental failure of the essential function of governance is manifest. Allow this situation to deteriorate to its logical end and a failed state is the result.

More broadly, such a trend could lead to the failure of multilateralism in the post World War II system of international relations.

The downward spiral that often follows is horribly predictable. Hunger and disease emerge on a mass scale. Violent competition between local interests replaces functioning justice systems and indigenous dispute resolution mechanisms.

The general population may become increasingly armed – what came to be called “kalashnikovization” in Afghanistan. Militias and warlords feed on the conflict and chaos to consolidate and expand their power.

A self-perpetuating warrior economy develops. The rule of force replaces the rule of law. Rape and other gender-based violence become widespread. Old ethnic divisions re-emerge with atrocious fury.

Waves of human displacement flow across and out of the country, as people in their thousands flee terror, hunger and despair. Extreme desperation gives rise to extreme ideologies and acts. Might makes right, and right is crushed in the dust.

Undoubtedly, those who govern must accept most of the responsibility for the failure of governance. But it helps little to point a finger of blame at the suffering country alone.

Indeed, in our interconnected world it would be hard to imagine a case of extreme poverty, underdevelopment, inequity, or armed conflict in which none of the complex causal factors originated outside the affected country.

Dig deep enough into the roots of state failure, and you will inevitably find evidence of colonialism, direct armed aggression, covert military intervention, encouragement of proxy warfare, exploitative multinational trade and business practices, or reckless economic destabilization. It is no longer possible to compartmentalize the causes of state failure any more than it is possible to contain its effects.

In a globalized world, human security must therefore be viewed as a continuum flowing through each state, its neighbours, the region, and the world. Respect for national sovereignty is itself a crucial norm in peaceful relations. But if recent history is to be our teacher, it must never be seen as a manacle in times of humanitarian crisis or human rights catastrophe.

In the end, sovereignty belongs to the people and it is their will that forms the legitimate basis for government. And some acts, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, automatically trigger extranational obligations to act. Legally, morally and logically, every failed (or failing) state is unavoidably the business of the entire community of nations.

But that recognition must be a call to solidarity, to multilateral cooperation, and to the primacy of the rule of law – the core concepts of the UN Charter itself. These are the factors that separate aggression from succour, banditry from lawful intervention, and chaos from order. These are the hallmarks of legitimacy.

State failure as an incubator of despair has evolved many new and deadly strains in our time, among them intense forms of domestic armed repression as well as new levels of international terrorism.

There is no justification for terrorism which, however defined and regardless of the perpetrator or cause, has at its core the intentional targeting of innocent civilians. At the same time, no strategy to combat terrorism can be effective if it does not address root causes.

It is no accident that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly recognized, more than half a century ago, that where human rights are not protected by the rule of law, people will inevitably seek other means as a last resort to pursue the claims that they see as rightful.

This is not a question of which cause is just and which is not. Rather, it is a simple imperative of ensuring that the mechanisms of the rule of law are functioning with full authority and effect, nationally and internationally, so that claims can be heard and redressed, based upon the provisions of law and the requirements of justice.

The alternative is painfully evident today: conflict, war and terrorism. Attack and counter attack, assault and retribution.

Every armed conflict today represents both a bloody monument to the failure of the rule of law somewhere and a call for the restoration of the rule of law everywhere. This cycle of violence must be broken. Impunity is the fuel of sustained conflict. Where armed repression strips people of their rights and dignity, those responsible must answer under the rule of law.

Where terrorism draws civilian blood, those responsible must answer under the rule of law. In other words, human security will be best protected when the fundamental rules of human rights and human dignity apply to every state, every armed group, every individual and community, every public entity and every private corporation.

There is reason for optimism in recent developments demonstrating the international community’s recognition that peace and justice, far from being logical opposites, are two sides of the same coin.

The last decade has brought us international tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, an International Criminal Court, the exercise of universal jurisdiction to bring accountability to perpetrators of crimes against humanity, countless national post-conflict justice processes, and truth and reconciliation mechanisms.

These are important not only in addressing the abuses of the past but also in sending a clear warning to the would-be violators of the present and future.

Fifty-four years after the birth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the tide of change can be seen to be rising all around us. If we are to prevent state failure and the collapse of the international system, protect human security and realize human rights, we must recommit to strengthening and respecting the rule of law, both nationally and internationally.

In a globalized world, human security will be a collective success or it will be a collective failure. Humanity is its own life raft.

Sergio Vieira de Mello
Sergio Vieira de Mello is UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.